16.Oct.2009 James Still: The Hostage Crisis

THE HEAVENS ARE HUNG IN BLACK opened a week ago — and I’ve since been “blog-free” deciding that it was time for others to talk about the play and the production, that it was the audience’s turn to weigh in in all the ways they can, for critics to write their reviews and tell me everything I got wrong, for Lincoln buffs to test my facts, for colleagues to embrace or ignore me and my play.

Being a playwright isn’t for sissies. It’s… public.

I left Indianapolis the morning after opening and the show goes on — which for me is agonizingly wonderful. In fact, the production goes on quite nicely without the writer lurking behind the potted palms in the IRT’s grand lobby. Really, who needs a lurker? But what else is the writer to do? Opening night is full of rituals I treasure, and it’s also a night of unbearable pressures, a night of sublime surprises, a night of pure elation, a night of grief. Let me explain…

There are rituals I’ve come to count on, little (private) things I do on every opening — part superstition, part habit, part “What the hell else am I going to do on a night that tests a control freak to the core?” It is beautifully clear to me on opening night that the play belongs to the actors — they are the storytellers, they have the primary relationship to the audience, they are the ones who must shoulder their own version of the same obsessions that made it possible for me to ever write HEAVENS. For me, actors are like the “amen” to a prayer.

The pressures of opening night are just part of the gig. In the old days (think Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, William Inge) — when plays opened on Broadway, the writer hid out in a bar down the street, drank him/herself out of his/her presumed misery, and was later told how everything had gone back at the theatre (though perhaps they were too drunk to care?). The older I get, the more I understand the writer’s impulse to dive heart-first into a nice glass of Pinot Noir. But on opening night of HEAVENS I was sitting in the audience with about 600 other folks. Imagine how surreal and utterly impossibly odd it is to be sitting in a full house watching a play you wrote. If you’re a fiction writer, it might be like watching someone read your book. I have probably sat in the audience of one of my plays for the very last time (OK, I’ve said that before but this time I really mean it). I don’t know if my heart can take it any more. Don’t get me wrong! Opening night’s audience was wonderful, responsive, generous, present. It’s me who was surfing on a time warp while trying to watch the play. And yet… and yet… there were actual stretches (some of them quite long stretches) where I was totally lost in the play and even forgot that I was the one who wrote those words, imagined those scenes… For those stretches of the play I was almost just another audience member. As if I could ever be just another audience member.

The intense grief I felt on opening night was one I shouldn’t even reveal. But I decided if I was going to commit to writing this blog (I may never do this again) — I wouldn’t be careful or clever, I would risk writing about whatever was happening to me in the process. The grief has to do with the play’s future. Simply, will it ever be produced again? The fierce part of me that’s also naturally optimistic believes that HEAVENS is too good of a play not to have more life. But the pragmatist in me worries which makes this is a good time to say this: the IRT could have opened the 38th season with a different play, a smaller-cast play, a play with a happier title, a play that more obviously soothed audiences in this tricky economic time… But Janet Allen and Steven Stolen committed to my play and committed to producing it exquisitely — and that they have done. Director Peter Amster brought his trademark skills to the production — and something more too. The design team lovingly and heroically made meaning out of HEAVENS so that makes it feel like it was destined to play in that very theatre. Peter and the designers gave the play a home, they make the play belong. And the actors rise to the occasion at least 8 times a week now. One of the many things I love about the performances in this production is that these are actors who LOVE what they do, their joy for performing this play is abundantly clear — so much that I wish I could truly express how much that moves me.

A couple of other things. Last week in the New York Times there was yet another article about Lincoln. The article focuses on an exhibition that just opened at the New York Historical Society. Anyone who has seen HEAVENS will recognize some of the names and incidents from the play also mentioned in this article. Mr. Lincoln continues to make news.

Finally, on my drive from the hotel to the IRT on opening night, I was sitting in a car by myself at a stop light and I had one of those rare, rare, rare encounters with an idea for a new play. As if part of the rain that was falling that night, this idea for a new play and its characters hit me like I was the tallest building in downtown Indianapolis. In addition to it being thrilling (and now it competes with this other new play I’ve already started), I took it as a sign that dear difficult/weird/brilliant Mr. Lincoln had decided (in that flash) to finally let me go. The hostage crisis is over. But now I wonder who has been holding who? Who was the hostage? For more than four years has Mr. Lincoln been holding me hostage? Or have I been holding HIM hostage? One of us or both of us simply loosened a grip in that moment. One of us is relieved. Surprisingly, it’s not me.

Until soon,


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